THE SILVERY PRIZE NOMINATION
I always thought that the worst thing about going to a party was the people you'd find there who were trying too hard ("Look at me - I'm having FUN!"). I can't get this image out of my head. The Mercury Prize judging panel leaping around a front-room in Hertfordshire with plant pots on their heads, or attempting to entertain members of the opposite sex with low-rent dirty media speak. It must have been a memorable night though in this nightmare of mine, because this year's list is so utterly, utterly random. Did they cobble it together when they were clearing up?
It's not that it's a bad list. It has some great stuff on it. But 16 years since it began it feels like the Mercurys is having something of a teenage crisis. It doesn't know what to do with its life.
Is it about art or commercialism? Should we be challenged or reassured by it? Should we pack it off on a gap year as soon as possible?
To be honest I could (in fact I was very tempted to) spend another ten minutes exploring its triumphs and failings, but it has nothing to do with the music I like this week. Not just because I went to see the much-tipped young soulman Ely 'Paperboy' Reed on Wednesday night, who is American and therefore ineligible for the Big M; but even the British music I'm listening to is completely off the Mercury radar.
Take Silvery! Silvery sound like Sparks, the Kaiser Chiefs, The Cardiacs and XTC (or at least their alter ego The Dukes Of Stratosphear). The combination is awkwardly tuneful, upbeat, glam and weird. Add to this images of Victorian London, old steam ships and the industrial revolution - and they sound like nothing in the charts (which shouldn't be a reason for them NOT to be in the charts, but who's taking any risks these days?).
The Silvery album due later this year, titled Thunderer & Excelsior, is a quirky record without being a novelty record. It is, for want of a better word, a little eccentric, but only comparatively so (because everyone else has become so straight this year). Randomly dipping into it, Foreign Exchange & The Drilling Machine sounds like a distorted fairground ride; Revolving Sleepy Signs is where art-rock meets music hall; and Action Force is my favourite rapid-fire, jerky pop song of the year.
If you were being picky, they could have trimmed the thing to 12 tracks (from its existing 14) and everybody knows I faint at the merest waft of prog rock, so there's a few light-headed spells along the way. But this is part of their singular sound. They occupy a minority group in pop that's so tiny, not even the Mercurys has a token place for it.
And I know, in the Mercurys' defense, any British act is eligible to enter, but I haven't seen Silvery's record company finances. It's coming out on the indie label Blow Up, who - like everybody else I guess - could nominate the album at a cost of £125 and 25 free CDs to the organizers.
But after that, if you do receive a nomination, one industry insider who I emailed this week claims, you then need to forward another 125 CDs to the Mercury team plus a payment of £3,900 as a marketing contribution to help cover print ads and retail campaigns. Then you'll probably want to go to the awards themselves, which will set you back "around £2,500 for a table of ten", not including your booze.
Now this is probably small beer for a major set-up, but I'd imagine it's a trip to the bank manager for many nascent labels.
Reassuringly, I'm certain Mute Records could stump up the fee for the XX Teens album - and probably will next year - but here's another record which feels like it's swimming against the tide. XX Teens, formerly Xerox Teens, once spent a night in a pub last year trying to convince me (at least semi-seriously) to manage them. I didn't. I wouldn't know how. I'm too soft. Whoever did take them in hand though has overseen - via line-up changes, touring and an apparently deft nurturing of some of their more bizarre ideas - an album which is a real cracker.
Lyrically it's somewhere out there in Mark E Smith world, while musically it's a great, surreal, rip-roaring, rhythmical indie rock record. Welcome To Goon Island (what a title!) is just awash with new ideas.
I've run out of time to do it justice really, but go to their website for more of an insight and if you can tell me what's behind the video for their former single Darlin', apart from too much cheese before bedtime, then let me know.
I live in hope that this time next year one of the (mysterious) Mercury judges will smuggle a copy of this into one of their meetings and take one for the team.
About five years ago I interviewed the chairman of the judging panel Simon Frith who told me that the process of selecting the final dozen albums is less about a consensus in the room and more to do with the individual judge's determination. If a judge could stand up and make a passionate case for a particular record then it stood a good chance of making the list.
It sounds like part of the 12-step recovery program to me. Imagine your hipster peers all sat in a circle, shuffling their feet, as it gets to your turn. "Hello, I'm Steve. And I'm a Coldplay addict. On a bad day I can listen to their album six or seven times...."
Given this sort of pressure, can I just say this: if you were the person this year who refused to leave until the British Sea Power album was nominated, then please feel free to come and see me and claim your free bottle of vodka. You're a star.